Understanding the Links Between DEI and Innovation

by | Mar 23, 2021

dei and innovation

Two of the things CEOs struggle with the most are how to get employees to be more innovative, and how to build a diverse and inclusive culture. On the surface, innovation and DEI seem unrelated, but they’re not.

I recently read an article in HBR about what’s needed for a successful agile transformation in organizations. The research the authors conducted found that “many large agile initiatives not only miss their goals but also cause organizational disruption—including staff burnout, the loss of key talent, and infighting among teams.”

What’s going wrong? With the help of organizational network analysis—a methodology for mapping how people collaborate—the authors have identified where unforeseen barriers undermine agile initiatives. The main problem they found: Traditional practices for executing agile projects are ineffective.

These “traditional practices” create many of the problems with both agile projects (which are largely used for innovation) and DEI. As Albert Einstein once said, “You can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it.”

So what makes us think we can be successful with any kind of systems change using traditional practices?

Companies that are adept and both innovation and DEI share these four things in common:

Fewer Silos

Breaking down silos between departments and business units takes time and requires that teams build shared agreements and practices around The Five Behaviors of Cohesive Teams™: vulnerability-based trust, managing conflict, shared commitments, accountability, and results.

These agreements and practices then enable cross-functional collaboration at both formal and informal levels and organizations that celebrate innovation and DEI are adept in ensuring there are few, if any, departments running as silos.

Less Star Power

When shared results are valued more than individual contributions, employees are empowered to add value to collaborations, regardless of whether they have been recognized as high-potential. In short, there’s less emphasis on “star power” and more emphasis on the team.

In the HBR article cited above, the researchers found that of the 3-5% of employees who added the most value to agile projects, less than half had been identified as high potential. Because many of the traits historically associated with high-potential employees are inherently related to dominant culture (aka cis-gendered white men), this gives marginalized employees a greater opportunity to thrive. And leaders are finding that, in these challenging times, the qualities that have served marginalized employees well for years (like grit and resilience) have become increasingly desirable. People who feel like they’re valued naturally feel a stronger sense of belonging.

Embedded Core Values

Organizations that value innovation and DEI don’t look at either as initiatives, but rather as ways of being–core values–that are embedded throughout the entire culture. To make the changes necessary to embed innovation and DEI in the culture, they deploy the use of informal influencers, like “brokers” who sit at the intersection of business units or departments, and “central connectors” who have considerable influence within their business units, regardless of whether they hold an official leadership role.

These are the people who are the most likely to convince others to get on board with proposed changes. Therefore, they consult these team members early in a change process so they feel a sense of ownership, and just before rollout so they can help get buy-in from other employees.

Normalized Mistakes

Having a culture that normalizes and even celebrates making mistakes is key in innovation- and DEI-driven organizations. This is a big one, and it might be the most difficult one to shift in a culture because not making mistakes or being wrong is one of the most dominant traits in U.S. culture.

Most of us were indoctrinated from a very young age to either not make mistakes or to hide them when they happen. How many of us forged a parent’s signature on a “bad” report card in grade school? (Please tell me it wasn’t just me!) Yet we all know that there has never been a successful innovation or product launch that wasn’t preceded by any number of “failures.”

These cultures that normalize and celebrate mistakes learned how to get comfortable being uncomfortable. They’ve reframed their understanding of failure: it is a necessary milestone on the path to success. They changed the mindset of their teams to embrace short-term “failures.” And they remember that short-term failures pave the way to long-term success.

Companies that want to thrive in these challenging times would be well-served to start adopting these non-traditional practices in order to increase employee engagement, satisfaction, and productivity. Ask us how!

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